CNN International just interviewed me about my experience of photographing in India as part of their series Parting Shots. Its a short segment in which I discuss the privilege of working in India over the past fifteen years and my thoughts on issues around the recent national election.
If harbouring a secret ever caused Bharathi Kannamma to feel a sense of shame, she certainly shows no sign of it today. Living as a man until ten years ago, Kannamma is now a transgender woman. Until the age of 43, she kept her feminine feelings to herself. It was only when her mother died in 2004 that Kannamma came out, began to dress as a woman and lived openly as a transgender person.
Bharathi Kannamma launches her campaign for election among the morning traffic in a suburb of Madurai. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014
Determined, self-effacing and confident, she is now touring Madurai, campaigning as an independent candidate in the Indian national election for which voting is currently underway. At the beginning of April, I spent a few days filming Kannamma and her small entourage of supporters in south India for the Guardian newspaper.
As Kannamma tells an policeman in the film, she is not standing on a platform narrowly defined by the interests of transgender people but is appealing to all, most particularly the poor. And it was in the less-salubrious neighbourhoods of Madurai that I saw the greatest affinity between Kannamma and the electorate – especially poor women. Having suffered herself, Kannamma’s appeal to this community felt genuine. She spoke to them without condescension, delivering her message in a blunt style that would have felt false had it been uttered by one of her mainstream rivals,
“If we don’t have water to clean our arse, whats the point of living?”
Kannamma visits neighbourhoods in the early morning and late evening – times when she is most likely to attract the ears of the electorate. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014
Though there are many obstacles ahead, this is an exciting time for India’s LGBT community. The 2014 election is the first in which both voters and candidates can define themselves as transgender. And only last week the Supreme Court ruled that third gender people have the same rights as men and women. Penal code 377 which criminalises gay sex is still very much in place but this draconian law continues to be debated in the courts and there is an increasing sense that it will soon be dispensed with – over 150 years after the British introduced it.
Kannamma discusses her election pledges with the press on a busy market street in central Madurai. Madurai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014
In Kannamma’s home state of Tamil Nadu, where transgender people are known as aravanis, there have been further gains. In 2009, the state government began providing sex-change surgery free of cost. Tamil Nadu also provides special third gender ration cards, passports and reserved seats in colleges. And 2008 saw the launch of Ippudikku Rose, a Tamil talk-show fronted by India’s first transgender TV-host.
As I have written about on other occasions here and here, none of these gains have been bestowed upon the community. They are the result of a long and ongoing struggle by ordinary Indian LGBT people including Bharati Kannamma.
Madurai votes on April 24th and counting takes place on May 16th.
A drummer and his band play at a political rally ahead of the 2014 Indian election. Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014
Voters in Tamil Nadu state don’t go to the polls until April 24th but while in Chennai yesterday I came across a political rally for the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party. There was a festive atmosphere with flags, fireworks and very loud music by this drummer and his band. The 2014 Indian election is an incredible undertaking with 717 million registered voters, 533 constituencies, 8,070 candidates and 370 political parties.
Yesterday saw the launch of Christian Aid’s “In Kony’s Shadow”, a multimedia exhibition at London’s Oxo Tower that examines the legacy of the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda that ended in 2007. The exhibition, which runs until March 16th, features photographs by Will Storr and two of my short films about which I have written before.
Together with Will and Christian Aid’s Chief Executive Loretta Minghella, I spoke at last night’s private viewing at the Oxo Tower. So I’m posting a version of that speech here, outlining my enthusiasm for online video stories and my approach when making the film on former LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) child-soldier Norman Okello below.
… the fundamentals of good storytelling are still the same as they always have been.
With the public’s growing appetite for short online videos, there are new opportunities for development agencies like Christian Aid to engage people with big issues. Some of these videos go viral and have the potential to inspire change by examining areas of concern and provoking debate. Added to this altered landscape are new technologies that see quality filmmaking cameras getting smaller and cheaper. Video journalists like myself can now work independently without the need of a large crew, taking cameras into often demanding or sensitive environments to bring stories to public attention via the internet.
Such technological innovations are to be welcomed but the fundamentals of good storytelling are still the same as they always have been. So when Christian Aid approached me with the idea of making a short film about Norman Okello, a former child soldier with the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), I concerned myself less with the equipment that I would use than with research and the challenges of telling a story about someone I had never met and whose background was so very different from my own. Overcoming these differences was key, requiring both sensitivity and time. I knew that I had to build a trust with Norman so that he would feel comfortable expressing his emotions on camera. By revealing his feelings, I hoped Norman would arouse empathy in an audience and so engage them in an issue that might otherwise be considered distant or obscure.
Working with Christian Aid’s Emma Wigley, I interviewed Norman for about five hours over several sessions interspersed among our shooting-schedule. I decided to conduct the interviews beneath a small collection of trees beside Norman’s childhood home. I wanted Norman to avoid any sense of inhibition so we made sure he was out of earshot of his family, but close enough to them to feel comfortable and secure.
Over time Norman’s reservations subsided and he revealed details of his traumatic childhood and expressed the frustration of reconciling his past life with the present. He explained his desire to be a productive member of society and to realise his potential as a dutiful son, a loving husband and a responsible father.
Norman’s candour is unusual in post-conflict Uganda. It is uncommon to find people discussing their own anxieties, particularly with strangers. Most are either too busy struggling to provide for the basic needs of their family or they are uneasy expressing opinions about a recent conflict that has left many scars.
It is impossible for a film of less than eight minutes to digest a complex issue like the northern Ugandan conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda. But by focussing on one individual, I hope that audiences come away from this film appreciating that conflicts in apparently distant lands involve ordinary people like Norman. It is far more difficult to dismiss events in other parts of the world as irrelevant to our own lives if we identify with individuals and relate our own circumstances to theirs.
Making an engaging film is of course only half the battle. It is vital that such films actually get seen. Christian Aid’s communication and media teams have worked hard to distribute this film about Norman Okello along with my accompanying profile of Deo Komakech. Between them, these two short films have appeared on British newspaper websites including The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky News and The Independent.
The British NGO Christian Aid have just launched a micro-website called “In Kony’s Shadow,” examining the legacy of northern Uganda’s 20-year conflict that ended in 2006. The site features photographs, words and two videos that I directed and edited. The Guardian website published one of these videos last weekend to run alongside journalist Will Storr’s shocking account of an attack on unarmed civilians in the village of Amoko.
The conflict between the Ugandan Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) saw thousands killed and at least 1.9 million people displaced, many of them forced into dangerous, insanitary “protected villages” run by the government where up to 1,000 people died every week. As the war unfolded, over 20,000 children were abducted and recruited into the LRA. My film above looks at the life of former LRA child-soldier Norman Okello who grapples with the legacy of a traumatic childhood during which he was both a victim and a perpetrator of violence.
The northern Ugandan war had its roots in the legitimate economic and political grievances of the marginalised Acholi people who live in northern Uganda. Joseph Kony and others in the leadership of the LRA exploited this grievance to further their own political and military ambitions. The opportunistic Kony used a warped interpretation of Christianity to secure credibility and build a cult-like following among some but he ultimately failed in his efforts to win the support of the wider Acholi population.
Rejecting the LRA but wary of the Kampala government’s motives for pursuing war in their northern Ugandan homeland, the Acholi people found themselves caught between two often-brutal forces. Mutilation, rape and murder were used to terrorise and control the civilian population.
Emerging from this 20-year conflict was never going to be easy. Ugandan-based Christian Aid partners, the Refugee Law Project (RLP) recognise that building peace in Uganda requires that crimes of the past be properly documented. My second video follows the RLP’s Deo Komakech as he records testimony among a community whose voice has been largely ignored. Deo listens as ordinary people reveal to him “secrets that were hidden in my heart.” And so begins a tentative process that is fundamental to any hopes of building a stable and secure society. As Deo says, Uganda must confront its past “in order to move forward and have a sustained peace.”
Videos like these are always a collaborative effort. Norman & Deo were both generous subjects and I had the pleasure of working with Emma Wigley of Christian Aid whose “passion for storytelling” has been deservedly recognised by others. She and her colleagues at Christian Aid understand that producing a quality multi-media sites like this can spread awareness of issues that have too-often fallen off the front page.
The stories featured here, along with photographs by Will Storr, will feature at in an exhibition at London’s Oxo gallery from 5 March – 16 March 2014.